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18.09.19

[Article] The future of mobility by Leo Johnson

On land, in the sky, on water, means of transport have been evolving constantly since the dawn of time. Developments providing ever more power and speed have emerged, from the horse to the electric car via the locomotive and the plane, but sometimes they are detrimental to our planet. Alternative forms of mobility are appearing, less focused on the use of fossil fuels and thus emitting less carbon dioxide. So, when will we all travel by electric vehicle? What impact will the technologies have on our transport ecosystem? Will these changes be the same everywhere in the world?
Leo Johnson, an expert in economics and sustainable development, shares with us his vision of mobility in the short to medium term.

For the first 250 metres it all goes great. I’m sitting in the back of Singapore’s pilot driverless car, exploring, for BBC Radio 4, the long term future of mobility. We glide up the road, a blank space in front of the wheel, then the car swerves without warning onto the wrong side of the road, a giant dumpster truck hurtling straight for us. The emergency driver grabs the steering wheel, yanks us back to safety, then says words to the effect of “okay that didn’t go that well, but you have got to understand something. This isn’t a plain vanilla driverless car. This is a do-it-yourself one, built with off-the-shelf supermarket technology to accelerate the rollout.” I nod. The big picture project, I later find out at the transport ministry, is as follows: Step one is driverless cars, complete with a multi modal transport ecosystem that includes 5G, blockchain-based, self separating flying vehicles. Step two is to fully automate the economy. Step three is to put all citizens on universal basic incomes.  Step four, with Northern Jakarta heading under water from climate change, is too close of the city walls to migration. 

Is this the future of mobility?

We’ve grown up, many of us, in the city of the car, its borders and arteries defined by the transport revolutions that Henry Ford ushered in a century ago. Is a new transport revolution about to reshape not just mobility but the cities we live in?
The long-term megatrends look hard to stop. Exponential technologies, from blockchain to the Internet of things to nanotech and quantum-based battery improvements, are accelerating and combining to lay the framework for a radically different transport ecosystem. But in the short term there are still formidable barriers, from public perception to regulatory complexity to transitional safety challenges that could stall wholesale transformation. 

So just where and how could the next wave of disruption in mobility break?

Geography and governance will be critical. There are transport leaders, cities like Amsterdam, Stockholm and Helsinki, that are leveraging the combination of good road quality, advanced technological infrastructure and high levels of governance and state and private sector capital to start to move towards seamless mobility. What is the vision? An “all you can eat” mobility-as-a-service, multimodal transport ecosystem that includes autonomy, electric vehicles and last mile transport options from shared bikes to electric scooters. But these cities transforming mobility systems, even among developed nations, are the minority. For the rich world megacities, the transport revolution looks in the short term to be one that’s less about an inclusive and autonomous low carbon model for the many, than personal mobility upgrades that ease the pain for the few. It’s pain that’s worth easing; congestion in Los Angeles costs the city an estimated $23 billion per annum and highway corridors for electric driverless cars can at least take the sting out of the long commute. But the risk is that the underlying challenge of mass congestion goes unsolved, with personal driverless cars, made cheaper through electrification, potentially even increasing total traffic by an estimated 25% by 2030. And the real mobility challenge is in emerging markets. By 2035, the World Bank estimates, the total number of people living in Asian and sub-Saharan African megacities will have risen to 4.9 billion. And for these low-income megacities, from Mumbai to Lagos, the barriers to a transport revolution look formidable. The very same cities that confront the most pressing mobility challenges, from collapsing road infrastructure to congestion and toxic air quality, are the cities that lack the capital and governance structures needed to accelerate investment into a technological overhaul. 

What does the medium-term transport future look like for these critical emerging market megacities?

The best case looks like an acceleration down the route of low carbon mass transit that Thailand is exploring, where companies like BMW are pushing out electric vehicle car sharing and campus-based electric buses across Bangkok. But if there are barriers to the Jetsons-style dream of a wholesale transport revolution, longer term, there are also powerful accelerators. Electric vehicles are getting way cheaper, and way faster than expected, with the electric vehicle crossover point, the point where it’s cheaper to buy an electric, not fossil fuel vehicle, now dropping to 2022. That matters in terms of widespread adoption. But the real game changer is the potential for vehicle-to-grid systems that essentially turn cars into revenue-generating “batteries on wheels”. In Denmark, where Enel and Nissan have set up the first vehicle-to-grid (V2G) commercial hub, cars don’t just save money, they generate the owners around €1,500 in annual revenue. Is Henry Ford’s breakthrough, the fossil fuel driven private car, set to become the next gondola, an obsolete relic that lingers on only as a tourist attraction? In the short term, it looks like it’s here to stay, but what cannot go on, as Richard Nixon’s advisor Herb Stein, once commented, must stop. Fast forward and it’s hard to see the looming collision of megatrends, from exponential technology to urbanisation to demographics and climate change, not accelerating a transport revolution that once again reshapes the city and its business. 

What is out there in the transport Imaginarium to watch out for?

It’s stuff that is already getting built, from the Hyperloop that’s already part of the planned transport mix between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, post Dubai Expo 2020, to NASA and Uber Air’s partnership for mass access to vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft, to the Audi Pod that hovers above you, lifts up your vehicle, and delivers you, like the hand of God, from the jam. And will any of this address the transport challenges of the many? At a transport hack the other month, a group of entrepreneurs and Ministry officials laid out their plans for a second-tier city in Libya. Top of the list? Flying cars - a multimodal vertical takeoff and landing transport system. And why? It’s just like mobile phones in Africa, they tell me. They don’t have money to waste on the expensive fixed infrastructure of the road network. Is the West, I wonder, going to find itself in the slow lane?

Leo Johnson
Co-Presenter of Radio 4 “FutureProofing

Electric vehicles are getting way cheaper, and way faster than expected.

Leo Johnson

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